Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

E. coli on the March

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Escherichia coli showing flagella

E. coli stands for Escherichia coli which is beginning to become a household word.  The worst culprit has usually been E. coli 0157:H7 that in the past has been the cause of many severe food poisoning outbreaks – namely in prepackaged spinach, Taco Bell lettuce, Jack in the Box Hamburgers, and other numerous outbreaks and recent recalls.

A severe E. coli outbreak and recall in August of 2007 was due to a Cargill plant in Wisconsin.  Many of these ground beef patties were sold at Sam’s Club and were labeled American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties.  Eventually, 940 people fell sick with E. coli   infections linked to the Cargill plant and the company recalled 845,000 pounds of its ground beef.  Incidentally, Cargill is now involved with the outbreak of Salmonella-containing ground turkey products- so much for bigAg companies.

Sharon Smith bought one of the packages at Sam’s and used them to grill hamburgers at a family BBQ.  Her daughter, Stephanie aged 20, ate one.  After bloody diarrhea, kidney failure, seizures and convulsions that required Mayo clinic doctors to put into a coma, she regained consciousness after nine weeks with nerve damage and paralysis.  She may never walk again.

An E. coli outbreak possibly linked to romaine lettuce occurred in April, 2010.  The most common strain of E. coli found in U.S. patients is E. coli O157:H7.  This time, the CDC said the strain linked to the lettuce was E. coli 0145, which is more difficult to identify and may go unreported. This outbreak sickened at least 19 people in Michigan, Ohio and New York, resulting in 12 hospitalizations and three cases involving potentially life-threatening complications. The outbreak was connected to contaminated romaine lettuce products sold to wholesalers and food-service outlets, and for use in in-store salad bars and delis in 23 states east of the Mississippi River.

This spring a recently identified strain of E. coli 0104:H4 killed dozens of Europeans (last count 53), especially those in Germany, and sickened hundreds more resulting in hospitalizations.  So new strains other than the 0157:H7 are being discovered more and more around the world.  The CDC is now following at least six types of so-called Shiga toxin E. coli, which like 0104:H4, O145, as well as the older strain 0157:H7 all cause bloody diarrhea, and in extreme cases, fatal kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).

Antibiotics can worsen an E. coli infection. Giving antibiotics such as fluoroquinolones such as Cipro can cause a patient with any strain of toxic E. coli to die.  The reason is when the bacteria die, they release more of their toxin in great amounts.

E. coli 014:H4 is resistant to at least 14 antibiotics. Bacteria have the ability to exchange genetic information in an environment where antibiotics use is abundant such in a hospital or a factory farm.

Unknown to me until now, hemolytic uremic syndrome apparently does not just occur in E. coli bacteria infections.  Very recently, a friend’s granddaughter acquired a Campylobacter infection that progressed to HUS. She had been to a local petting zoo and said she petted the chicken and the goats. She did wash her hands immediately, which is recommended by the zoo.

 Campylobacter organisms can be found everywhere and are commonly found in the intestinal tracts of cats, dogs, poultry, cattle, swine, rodents, monkeys, wild birds, and some humans. The bacteria pass through the body in the feces and cycle through the environment. They are also found in untreated water.

Mark Bittman, a famous food writer and journalist, in his recent article in the New York Times, “More Stomach-Churning Facts about the E. coli Outbreak” quotes Robert Brackett, a microbiologist and director of the Institute for Food Safety and Heath at Illinois Institute of Technology. He says:  “Many assume they have a handle on the behavior of certain organisms but they don’t, really.  Public health authorities have not recognized the importance of shigella-producing E. coli beyond 0157.   We need much better surveillance of these organisms. Where are they hiding? We don’t see them because no one looks until there’s a big outbreak.”  Hopefully, they will not show up in the American food supply – don’t bet on it.

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